Just when it looked like the Eastern Conference playoff picture was settling earlier than expected, the general mediocrity between seventh and 13th in the conference leaves seven teams with hopes for the final two playoff spots, even if the bottom three are closer to falling out of contention before the February 27th trade deadline.
Buffalo has joined Carolina as a likely seller, while Montreal, Tampa Bay and the Islanders are clinging to hope, but reality could set in soon.
It's reasonable to expect top teams like the Rangers, Bruins and Flyers to add pieces to surround their core, but any teams that are in playoff contention will consider bringing in players that can help in the short-term. Even a team like Ottawa, whose strong start has them surprisingly in a playoff spot, has to be considered a potential buyer.
The wildcard for the Eastern Conference may be the Pittsburgh Penguins. If they know they will have Sidney Crosby available, the Penguins are likely Cup contenders and can make the kind of move that might put them over the hump. If Crosby's status is uncertain, however, then the Penguins may need to be more ambitious in their attempts to provide additional help for Evgeni Malkin and company.
If there is a team that could be ripe for an overhaul, it may be the Buffalo Sabres. After spending big money last summer, the Sabres' results haven't been nearly good enough, so it's not at all surprising if GM Darcy Regier is busy.
With 10 days to go before the deadline, let's make a deal!
A couple of notes about the following chart:
Restricted Free Agents (RFA) have contracts that expire this summer, barring a contract extension in the meantime, but their current team retains the right to match a contract offer so long as they make the requisite qualifying offer. While restricted free agents haven't moved a lot, it's worth noting when decision time is coming on a young player's contract.
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA) have contracts that will expire this summer and, without a contract extension, they will be free to sign with whatever team they choose on July 1. These are the players that often move in "rental"-type deals, ideally providing a short-term fix with minimal commitment required.
Top prospects are the top five players in each organization. Other top prospects or those that are now with the NHL team may be listed among other players of interest. Contending teams may be more likely to dangle a top prospect or two as they try to find that final piece for their playoff mix, while it's safe to assume that young and rebuilding teams aren't going to move top prospects unless they get a significant long-term piece in return.
Other players of interest will include prospects who have spent some time in the NHL this season as well as players under contract for future seasons that may have some level of attractiveness on the trade market.
IMPORTANT: Just because a player is listed as being of interest, it doesn't mean he will be traded or should be traded. Some may just be of interest for teams looking to hit a home run when trying to swing a deal or they are players that may be considered to be underachieving for the money they are due over the rest of their contract.
Generally, then, here's a rough guide for which players each Eastern Conference team might have at their disposal in order to make a trade leading up to the deadline.
The Plan: Boston's mediocre play over the last month, coupled with the continued absence of Nathan Horton due to a concussion and Rich Peverley's recent injury could force the Bruins' hand to deal for a forward that can contribute offensively. As always, it seems, Boston could also use a puck-moving defenceman, but that's not as urgent as the need for scoring help.
The Plan: After spending big bucks last summer, the Sabres find themselves languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference and the playoffs are a longshot, so the Sabres ought to be open for business. Pending unrestricted free agents should be moved, but Buffalo might also be inclined to make deals that are more far-reaching than just a few rentals.
Buffalo has several veterans, from Derek Roy and Drew Stafford to Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera, that should draw interest from contenders looking to improve depth, yet have at least one more year remaining on their current contracts. Clearing out some space up front should afford greater opportunities for young forward Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, Luke Adam and Zack Kassian to establish that they can be factors offensively.
The Plan: Looking up at the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes could be easily identified as sellers, yet that doesn't appear to be the approach, after re-signing Tim Gleason and stating intentions to keep injured forward Tuomo Ruutu. Perhaps Ruutu will still get moved, but if not, that leaves Bryan Allen as the one unrestricted free agent left to deal. To be fair, the Hurricanes did get an early start on trading, by moving out Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky, but even with improved results under new coach Kirk Muller, there isn't enough talent on this roster to think that they will be just fine returning the same cast next season.
The Plan: The Panthers, somewhat surprisingly, find themselves in the playoff hunt, so they would seem more likely to add this season, rather than sell prior the deadline. With a four-point cushion at the top of the Southeast Division, the Panthers have to be prepared to add talent for the playoff push.
By no means would the Panthers want to sacrifice talent from their deep pool of prospects, but they are a team that -- even with the recent emergence of the Sean Bergenheim-Marcel Goc-Mikael Samuelsson line -- could use more scoring, to help ease the burden on the trio of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann and they are currently facing the prospect of being without Ed Jovanovski and Dmitri Kulikov on the blueline for quite a while (and Jason Garrison, currently, as well), so defence may be a more pressing need unless the Panthers are still comfortable with Keaton Ellerby and Erik Gudbranson handling bigger roles.
The Plan: While all hope isn't completely gone, it's appearing less and less likely that the Canadiens can overcome their deficit and reach the playoffs.
Barring a dramatic charge (like a five-game winning streak, for example) before the deadline, that leaves the Canadiens with unrestricted free agents Travis Moen, Andrei Kostitsyn and Chris Campoli that would all have some appeal for playoff-bound teams. Hal Gill has been moved out, bringing in Blake Geoffrion, so the Canadiens are leaning towards the seller's role. Trying to find a taker for Scott Gomez's salary will have to wait.
RFA in 2012: Mark Fayne.
The Plan: Back in the playoff picture, the Devils have added Alexei Ponikarovsky to improve their third line and they may want another top-six forward if Travis Zajac's Achilles injury continues to linger, but the primary issue is the blueline, where the Devils have added Kurtis Foster and called up Matt Taormina, but injuries to Henrik Tallinder and, recently, Adam Larsson, leave an already thin group extra lean.
Improved defence ought to make life easier on goaltender Martin Brodeur, who hasn't been on top of his game this season, but he was substantially better after the All-Star break last year, has been better after the break this year, so improving his supporting cast would solidify their spot in the postseason.
RFA in 2012: Matt Martin.
The Plan: The Isles have played better recently, yet remain far enough out of the playoff picture to expect that they will be sellers before the deadline unless they make the most of the games leading up to the deadline, including a pair against Ottawa. With a long list of pending unrestricted free agents, the Isles are prime candidates for teams not wanting to take on a lot of salary at the deadline, but most of those bargain veterans aren't going to bring a substantial return either. How many mid-round picks can they accumulate?
Nevertheless, the if the Islanders can move out some of the players near the end of the line, there might be some opportunities opening up for prospects (anyone want to give Nino Niederreiter a shot?) to step in and show what they can do late in the season, getting a head start on next year when, as always, the Islanders need to take the next step in their development.
Others of Interest: Artem Anisimov.
The Plan: At the top of the Eastern Conference, the Rangers are certainly in position to add some pieces as they push forward. Someone to upgrade the power play, whether that's a scoring forward or puck-moving defenceman, should be a priority, but after that, depth is really the only issue.
Even though the Blueshirts have been the beneficiaries of strong performances from the likes of call-ups LW Carl Hagelin and D Stu Bickel, an accumulation of injuries on defence could drive a desire for even more NHL-calibre talent in reserve, particularly if Michael Sauer remains sidelined with a concussion.
The Plan: The surprise of the season, the Senators are in playoff position after being widely forecasted (including by yours truly) for a season in the basement. Since adding Kyle Turris from Phoenix, the Senators have really taken off and have to be considered buyers before the deadline. Of course they won't mortgage the future, as that would be an overreaction, but when the team is getting solid production from veterans like RW Daniel Alfredsson and D Sergei Gonchar, it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.
Ideally, the Senators could find room for a scoring forward (or two) and another solid defender, but addressing those needs may require some creativity if Ottawa isn't inclined to sacrifice their up-and-comers.
The Plan: That the Flyers are in playoff position isn't surprising. That they are doing it without Chris Pronger, however, makes it a more impressive achievement. Given that Pronger is out long-term due to a concussion, it made sense for Philadelphia to acquire Nicklas Grossman, adding defensive stability.
Thanks to contributions from rookies (Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn among others), Philadelphia has enough depth up front, when healthy, that they should be able to deal from that position of strength, if necessary. James van Riemsdyk has been rumoured as a possible trade candidate, but as long as he's sidelined by a concussion, his value would seem to be diminished.
The Plan: The biggest issue facing the Penguins is the health of Sidney Crosby and, while news seems to be more favourable on that front, Crosby's presence affects what Pittsburgh may do before the deadline. If Crosby does suit up again this season, the Penguins could be Cup contenders, as the 1-2 punch of Crosby and Malkin vaults the Pens among the league's elite.
If not, then Pittsburgh should at least upgrade their secondary scoring (and how Pittsburgh behaves on deadline day might offer some clues about Crosby expectations). Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz could use additional support if the Penguins are going to make serious noise in the postseason.
The Plan: This season has been pretty much a washout for the Lightning, thanks in large part to substandard goaltending. If Tampa Bay harbours any illusions of competing for a playoff spot this season, upgrading between the pipes is naturally the first place to look. If the price for goaltending is too steep, Tampa Bay may have to wait until the summer and figures to leave them in selling position, with veteran defencemen Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark likely to draw offers.
The Plan: Generally, the Maple Leafs under Brian Burke have tried to make their deals well ahead of the deadline, but that hasn't been the case this season, so it will be interesting to see how active Burke is leading up to the deadline -- a the day he claims most mistakes are made by general managers. With improved prospect depth and a surplus of bodies on defence, the Leafs appear to be in position to make a significant addition to help improve their chances at a playoff berth.
Adding size up front has been the primary focus for Toronto and if it happened to be a big forward that can score, well, all the better. Those players don't come cheaply, however, so if the Leafs are going to land a big forward that can score, expect some significant pieces to move the other way.
The Plan: It's been an underwhelming season for the Caps, but they are still in the thick of the playoff race, so they can't very well abandon the year altogether. It appears that Mike Green is nearing a return, which should upgrade the attack from the blueline, leaving the Capitals' biggest offensive concern a playmaking centre to fill the void created by Nicklas Backstrom's concussion problems.
While Marcus Johansson has filled in admirably, the Capitals could target a playmaking centre that could help Alexander Ovechkin get on track and help rejuvenate a Capitals offence that hasn't been the same since Backstrom was hurt.
The Plan: The Jets remain in playoff contention, which could put a hold on any plans to sell, despite a long list of unrestricted free agents, some of whom (Johnny Oduya, Kyle Wellwood) might even be sought after in trades.
If there is adding to be done, the Jets certainly shouldn't turn down any proven scorers, but since the Jets intent to build from within, it seems unlikely that they would sacrifice much of the future for a short-term push to the postseason.